Saturday, March 11, 2017

Book Reivew: The Sea & Civilization

Last month at a Half Price Books I stumbled across The Sea & Civilization by Lincoln Paine, a lengthy tome of maritime history. The description drew me in instantly and I purchased it, but as I was mostly reading it in small portions during my lunch, it took my well over a month to work through its 599 pages. That may sound lengthy, and it is, because it needs to be. It is very broad in scope, covering the entire globe across tens of millennia.

It features archaeological, anthropological, and historical sources to reconstruct human travel along rivers and across seas. Based upon the area and era, the mixture of sources vary, but Paine uses whatever is available to paint the best picture he can of the maritime matters. He covers both civilian shipping and war at sea, and how they related to civilizations at a given time.

The topic of goods being traded and the maritime merchant world generally get more space than the naval matters, the life of a sailor, or the details of the ships. In part this is because of what written record survives, which often offered little insight into the life of the common civil or naval sailor, and little reliable about the ships involved. Some naval battles are discussed briefly to demonstrate typical technology or tactics of an era and civilization, or if a battle had an especially large impact upon history.

Whenever enough details are available about the ships and crews, from the written record or archaeological finds, Paine discusses them in suitable depth, but where they're scarce or unreliable short blocks of informed speculation hold sway instead. In part, this is an artifact of the times. Major merchants have long needed some degree of literacy, especially those who traded far and wide and needed to communicate with other merchants abroad. Most sailors were not very literate until recent centuries. Historians often went nowhere near the sea, and if they did, their unfamiliarity with ships and seafaring often resulted in vague descriptions. Even learned passengers those who traveled by ship and wrote of their journeys often left little reliable detail about the ships and crews.

Despite that, I found that this book helped the maritime past come alive in my mind's eye. It filled in many blanks in my knowledge, particularly with respect to the maritime practices of the Indian Ocean and East Asia. I'm definitely glad I read this book and intend to retain it as a reference.

There is an extensive section of source notes and bibliography at the end. There were no noticeable issues with typos or printing. However, I do not like the deckle (rough, untrimmed) edges of the printing I purchased.

I would definitely recommend this book to anybody with an interest in seafaring, naval history, or history in general. If you're not reading it in 15-20 minute portions, it will probably be devoured at a much faster pace than I managed.

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